When Roger Federer came up with the idea for the Laver Cup a few years ago, he envisioned a low-key "weekend festival of tennis" that would honor former greats and give today's stars the opportunity to mentor the rising generation.
This was one of the few times in his career that Federer could be accused of harboring low expectations.
The third edition of the event begins Friday on Federer's home turf in Geneva. The first two editions of the Laver Cup -- in Prague (2017) and Chicago (2018) -- were runaway hits. So much so that last May the ATP abandoned its entrenched antagonism toward exhibitions and embraced the Laver Cup as an official tour event (although the players will not earn ranking points for a variety of reasons having to do with tour rules).
"The Laver Cup has struck a chord with fans worldwide in a very short time," ATP CEO Chris Kermode said in May. "It's been great to see the passionate participation of the players and the response from the fans at the sold-out events. ... The ATP is excited to include the Laver Cup as an official part of the ATP Tour calendar and have it featured alongside other tournaments on all our platforms."
Named for living legend Rod Laver and prominently featuring captains John McEnroe (Team World) and Bjorn Borg (Team Europe), the Laver Cup has become a hot ticket in the blink of an eye. It was created with commendable intent, and it has enjoyed immediate appeal and instant credibility. Call it karma.
"[Originally] I just thought let's create a great event ... come up with a great concept where we can honor legends of the game," Federer said at a news conference in February.
It was immediately obvious the Laver Cup was no mere weekend hoot for Federer. Fans flocked to the event even though it has no bearing on the rankings.
"I know the Geneva fans because of matches I've played here in the past," Federer told reporters on Wednesday. "I expect it to be really good and loud. They have a way to knock their feet onto the stands and create this sort of thunder effect, which I think is going to be very cool."
The Laver Cup, played in large indoor arenas, features streamlined scoring, coaching and trappings more like those of a rock concert or WWE event. The resonant success of the event at a time when tennis is eager to woo younger fans and speed up matches has led many stakeholders to take notice. It's no coincidence that, starting this year, the Davis Cup will feature a streamlined format and take place at one site, ostensibly creating a mega-festival of tennis. The ATP has also launched the ATP Cup, another new, international team competition that will absorb most of the tennis bandwidth leading up to January's Australian Open.
The Laver Cup comes hard on the heels of the US Open. Yet once again, Federer has pulled an impressive lineup of stars out of his magic hat, none of those rabbits more impressive than US Open winner Rafael Nadal.
While good friends Federer and Nadal have often lent support to each other's enterprises, Nadal had plenty of reasonable excuses to skip the Laver Cup this year, starting with the need to rest his tendinitis-prone knees. Instead, shortly after his triumph in New York, Nadal told the ATP that any conversation about his schedule for the rest of the year will have to wait for a few days "to see how my body heals." He added, "But one thing I do have is Laver Cup 2019, marked on my calendar."
"He just really fits in the team super nicely," Federer said of Nadal this week. "He makes everyone feel comfortable and gives great energy and motivation."
Nadal isn't the only one whose Laver Cup experience has been so pleasant that he's penciled in a return after missing the last edition due to injury. Joining Nadal as repeat performers this year: Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev (both Team Europe), and John Isner, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov and Jack Sock (all Team World). Among the newcomers: Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Fabio Fognini for Team Europe, and Team World's Milos Raonic and Taylor Fritz.
"I would describe it as a lifetime dream, sharing the court with them," Tsitsipas said of Federer and Nadal on Wednesday, "experiencing things with them and getting to learn as much as I can."
Conspicuous by his absence is Novak Djokovic. Still ranked No. 1, Djokovic was an effective replacement for Nadal on Team Europe last year. He subsequently praised the concept and format of the Laver Cup. But long before he hurt his shoulder and was forced to retire during a fourth-round match at the US Open, his lack of participation in run-up media events signaled that he would not be available this year. He's still the third wheel in the "Fedal" relationship, but Djokovic expects to return to the regular tour during this ATP Asian swing.
Djokovic will be missed but not all that much due to the star-heavy lineups. The potential appeal of the Laver Cup was obvious from inception. Fans jumped at the chance to watch a handful of the game's top stars on a single afternoon or evening from the same seat. The compressed format (the scoring is traditional deuce-ad, but a match tiebreaker replaces any third set much like in ATP doubles) has been a hit. Spectators are fine with the idea of seeing shorter matches and more players, and couldn't care less where the Laver Cup fits into the big picture of sanctioned tournament tennis.
Coaching and the on-court benches of the two squads have also received praise. One of Federer's fears at inception was that, as there was no obligation for the team members to stick around if they weren't on court, the benches would be largely empty. But almost all of the players have been on the sideline for the duration of the playing sessions. Fans can watch captains McEnroe and Borg, as well as the players cheering, counseling, shouting advice and clowning on the sideline.
"They are amazing," Shapovalov said of his Team World pals last year. "It was so much fun [playing before them]. I was laughing on the court. They're unreal."
The optics of the Laver Cup add credence to the complaint that the fun factor is lacking these days in tour-level tennis. Fans, it turns out, aren't that fickle or difficult to please. Give them big names, things to watch in addition to the game and keep things moving, and you're good. The zeal of the players on the sideline during matches also fires up the spectators. Those sometimes lonely weeks and months of one-on-one competition can build up a powerful thirst for the camaraderie commonly found in team sports.
Perhaps nobody enjoyed the team experience more than Kyrgios, who said in Chicago: "I love the team event. I love to get behind my teammates and do everything I can as a competitor and as a team player to get the win."
Exhibition or not, getting the win clearly mattered in the first two editions (both won by Team Europe). Eight of the 11 matches in Chicago were decided by a match tiebreaker. As Federer said last September, "The only way it was ever going to be successful is if the players cared. And they did. I think you see it."
Federer described the intensity in Prague, where the first Laver Cup was staged in 2011, and in Chicago as "crazy." He admitted that he was "extremely nervous" having to perform with Nadal and Borg looking on from the bench. "It gets your heart going," he said this year. "I'm sure it's going to be the same again in Geneva. We are very excited."
After that heartbreaking loss to Djokovic at Wimbledon and a fail against Grigor Dimitrov at the US Open, the Laver Cup may be just the tonic Federer needs.